Christ Carrying the Cross

Christ Carrying the Cross

Monday, 7 May 2012

Christian Politics Via Badiou, or, How I Learned to Love Creatio Ex Nihilo and (Perhaps) Destroy Capitalism

Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it shall spring forth; shall ye not know it? I will even make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert.
          -Isaiah 43:19

I'm currently reading through and being absolutely blown away by Simon Critchley's The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology. I'm not quite half way through yet, but I'm intrigued by a number of the arguments he makes. The first section is a drawn out consideration of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's political theory, and in particular the religious elements at play. Near the end, he introduces Alain Badiou's understanding of politics as being grounded in the "event" and seeks to show that politically Badiou is far more of a Rousseauist (as Critchley reads him) than a Marxist.

While my summary of Badiou is obviously going to greatly diminish the complexity--and power--of his argument, I think that we can get at the gist of it by simply citing the title of his best known work: Being and Event. "Being," to Badiou, is the situation we find ourselves in, socially, politically, economically and so on. It is the circumstances that serve only to breed with itself and perpetuate the status quo. True politics can only arrive in the form of the "event," that which has no precedent in the current state of affairs, comes from without, and can only arrive via an act of collective will (Badiou's favourite/only example of the event is the Paris Commune of 1871). Writes Critchley: 
So, what is politics, then? It is what Badiou calls an "evanescent event," the act by which a people declares itself into existence and seeks to follow through on that declaration.... It is this sudden ex nihilo transformation of the febrile sterility of the world into a fecund something, this moment of radical rupture... a seizure by thought in the event that is a seizure of power (p. 100).
Now, leading up to this section I was extremely pleased with myself that I had discerned the theological basis of the event without Critchley explicitly stating it as such. Then, as I rounded the corner my eyes scanned across a pair of italicized words: ex nihilo. Fuck, I hadn't outsmarted the brilliant, world-famous philosopher after all.

Being able to tie the political impulse to the theological is important for me because for the last while I've had a lot of trouble identifying just what it is about certain elements of the Christian tradition that still make them useful. The creation story is one of them. Under the corrupting (read: "awesome") influence of Catherine Keller, creatio ex nihilo is one of those doctrines I was ready to toss aside until Peter Rollins resurrected it for me with his charming little parable about the woman who strips for $400. The one major criticism of Rollins that I think actually sticks is that he isn't political enough, so I'm extremely pleased that Critchley is indirectly teasing out the political possibilities already present in Rollins's work via Badiou.

Throughout his epistles, Saint Paul is obsessed with the the concept of the "new." It is the new being, the new creation, the new kingdom that Christ has introduced. In II Corinthians 5:17 it says that "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" We are also told in the famous (and progressive-favourite) passage Galatians 3:28 that "all are made one in Christ Jesus." To be a part of the new creation means becoming a part of a collective body, a body held together by that which is not a part of the present political being--grace--that is speaking with one voice, calling for radical egalitarianism and justice. 

The absurd otherness of the Christ event can and must be the necessary catalyst of the Badiouian event. Anything less would in my opinion be heresy. Like Badiou, I'm not actually that optimistic about an event taking place any time soon, but if Christianity has anything to offer the world right now, it's a prophetic imagination and faith in the "perhaps" of God's continuing work in the world. Quoth the Apostle Peter in a moment of characteristic agitation, "It's time to nut up or shut up."

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Brief Thoughts for a(n Easter) Sunday

And so we come to the end of my whirlwind marathon of blogging--three posts in three days. I've spent the weekend considering what the three verses of the hymn "Here Hangs a Man Discarded" can say for me (or us, if any other poor souls happen upon this blog) on an Easter weekend approximately 1983 years after a muckraking Palestinian Jew was nailed to a cross, and approximately 130 years after Friedrich Nietzsche pronounced the death of God in The Gay Science

This Easter Sunday post will be more difficult for me than the previous two, which will likely come as a surprise to most Christians, seeing as it is officially designated as "Best. Day. Ever." in the official Church calender. The reasons I have for my ambiguous relationship to the Resurrection have been for a long while scattered and inconsistent at best, but I was amazed to read a couple days ago a post on Homebrewed Christianity by the inimitable Tripp Fuller which almost perfectly encapsulates my feelings. I highly recommend reading the whole thing, but for time's sake I will list them all here:

  1. The resurrection of Jesus is a denial of the one true democracy - death.
  2. The resurrection of Jesus is a theological justification for turning our attention upwards towards a heavenly realm.
  3. The resurrection of Jesus is an enormous theological distraction and misguidedly attempts to tie up all truth's loose ends.
  4. The resurrection of Jesus reeks of triumphalism.
I want very much to be able to whole-heartedly embrace the resurrection, even if it is simply as the existential affirmation of living with the other, in spite of death as I suggested in the first two posts. It's difficult though, as the above points make abundantly clear. I don't believe in the afterlife, and to gloss over the effects of death--whether physical, spiritual or emotional--is to engage in a semi-literal disavowal of death. As I pointed out already, resurrection without a true understanding of death is impotent.

But if there is a central theme to all of this crazy, unwieldy mess, I think it's that love is stronger than death. This is actually something both myself and the evangelical church can agree on. The philosopher Simon Critchley (videos of Critchley speaking with Cornel West here) speaks a lot about the idea that the only way to live well is to learn to die well, but even more importantly to be able to love. For love to be the infinite force driving our lives, even into the eventual arms of death, is the best way to be in the world because it was only through love that Saint Paul was able to ask "O death, where is your sting?" So maybe the answer to the question is Yes, resurrection is possible after all.

I haven't directly talked about that final verse yet, so perhaps I will just leave it here to be pondered in the light of everything that has already been said:

And love that freely entered
the pit of life's despair,
can name our hidden darkness
and suffer with us there.
Christ, in our darkness risen,
help all who long for light
to hold the hand of promise,
'til faith receives its sight.


Until tomorrow, and the next, and the next.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Brief Thoughts for a (Holy) Saturday

"Icon of the Commemoration of Holy Saturday"
Yesterday, I waxed ineloquent on the first verse of the hymn "Here Hangs a Man Discarded," and considered what it has to say about our Good Friday experiences and theology. Today, I'm going to take the same approach to the second verse and tackle the oft-overlooked topic that is Holy Saturday. Known as Black Saturday in some traditions, there has long been--from what I understand--a certain disavowal of this day in the Western, and especially Protestant church. The Eastern Orthodox by contrast still commemorates this as the day that Jesus descended into hell, following the Apostles' Creed of the Cappadocian Fathers (Tad DeLay has a fun post on John Piper's recent Cappadocian stumble here). 

For the most part though, Saturday is just that awkward lump in the middle where everybody forgets about the Crucifixion and maybe starts preparing food for dinner on Sunday. Perhaps the words of Brian Wren in his hymn can allow us some perspective on Holy Saturday's perspective and what it may mean for moving from death into resurrection:

Yet here is help and comfort
for lives by comfort bound,
when drums of dazzling progress
give strangely hollow sound:
Life, emptied of all meaning,
drained out in bleak distress,
can share in broken silence
our deepest emptiness;

You may recall that the previous verse ends with the question of whether or not the Godforsaken Christ can "still bring a useful word / when faith and hope seem phantoms / and every hope absurd?" Although maybe not the strong words of comfort we may desire in response to the meaninglessness of death, this verse offers the possibility of life in spite of, or perhaps even because of. The narrator indicates that the "dazzling progress" we might traditionally put our faith in is without substance, hollow. Progress encourages us to escape, to look past our troubled circumstances into the false promise of a future without the existential threats of death or absence.

What the second half of the verse offers instead is not a verbal trick, an emotional sleight of hand, but the simple affirmation that the space of abandonment truly is a painful one. This reminds me of a question somebody asked me a month or so ago about what gods I believe in, and what gods (I think) believe in me. To the first part I answered that I viewed myself as responsible to the insistence of God, the infinite demand which opens me to the possibility of loving relationship with the other. To the second part I replied, and I quote: "The notion of a god 'believing in me' seems a bit like New Age bullshit meant to make me feel better about me, which I don't think helps anybody." I feel like this may be the difference between a radical Christianity I can be a part of and the frankly New Age-y vibe that permeates so much of the current church discussion.

For me, the key word in this section comes in the second-to-last line. That word is "share"; it's a word that sticks out among the seemingly all-encompassing desolation of Holy Saturday. Even in the "bleak distress" there is the possibility of a human connection that does not bridge the gap of the abyss, but rather lives into it, allowing the gap to become a paradoxical meeting place where life in spite of death can take place. Life qua resurrection.


Until tomorrow.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Brief Thoughts for a (Good) Friday

Photo blatantly stolen from 'Homebrewed Christianity'
Instead of attending the Good Friday gathering at what I can only imagine (and to be honest, hope) is soon to be my former Baptist church, I spent this morning riding the train downtown to attend service at St. Andrew's-Wesley United Church, a cavernous old mainline cathedral filled both with elaborately beautiful stained glass windows and Gothic-inspired arches, and with observant senior citizens and empty spaces in the pews. 

As dispiriting as it was on one level to be in so awe-inspiring a building with so few people, on another level it seemed oddly appropriate. I have a theory that if you are going to go to church on Good Friday, it simply will not do to be in a place that you feel at ease, surrounded by friends and family. However, that is neither here nor there. What I actually want to address is one of the hymns that was sung near the end of the service, a hymn that I had never heard before called "Here Hangs a Man Discarded."

Far from the triumphalist, Victory-first Easter songs I have been forced to endure these past few years, "Here Hangs a Man Discarded" was slow and melancholic; divided into three distinct-yet-enfolding verses, it seemed to correspond almost perfectly with the three primary days of the Easter cycle. I'd like to share the first verse today, followed by a few thoughts of my own (the same will go for Saturday and Sunday, if all goes to plan):

Here hangs a man discarded,
a scarecrow hoisted high,
a nonsense pointing nowhere
to all who hurry by.
Can such a clown of sorrows
still bring a useful word 
when faith and hope seem phantoms
and every hope absurd?

Such language is so pointed in the humiliation and absurdity of Jesus' death as to render it almost blasphemous to "some" traditions. I certainly can't imagine a song like this going over well at my current church. Here we have no elaborate theory of atonement, nor even a heroic revolutionary of the people stoically taking on the punishment of a corrupt system of political and religious oppression. Rather, he seems quite the absurd figure, a man whose work and teachings have led him and his followers no further than to death on a wooden beam and to being scattered to the wind in shame, respectfully.

Even those, and I would certainly count myself among them, who would find greater significance in the death of Christ than this should be struck by the immediacy of the pain on display in this first verse. This is the description of Christ on the cross after he has uttered the (in)famous words credited to him in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani." Godforsaken, stripped all grounding of meaning and love, Jesus does indeed become the existential "man discarded." I think the numerous uses of language attesting to the absurd--"clown of sorrows," "scarecrow hoisted high," "nonsense pointing nowhere"--are essential to conveying the immediate hopelessness of the situation. It's not difficult then to imagine why all of the (male) disciplines fled.

Nonetheless, I feel we are called as Christians to boldly step into this space of despair, disconnectedness and death. After the service at St. Andrew's-Wesley, I went almost immediately to work at my actual church where I am a janitor, and as I was arriving I heard our worship pastor practicing for this evening's service. He was playing a resurrection song. It bugged me at first--and still does, really--but now I'm happy that I can use it as an example. It's been some time since I embraced a literal resurrection, but this doesn't mean I have come to view it as unimportant. However, the resurrection in my opinion becomes absolutely impotent and useless without a proper appreciation for the death that precedes it. Good Friday is a day about death and absurdity and humiliation and remembrance and seeing the ways we build crosses even today through our actions and our institutional structures and despite all of this entering into the space of the Godforsaken Christ to lay down our identities--to lay down our very beings--just as he did so that we might truly take up the cause of the other and maybe even see the love of a God who probably isn't even there but insists and emerges in these bizarre places and relationships anyway.


Until tomorrow.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

"Our father": An A/theist Lenten Prayer

Our father
Is there a heaven?
Hollowed is thy name
Their kingdom come and gone
Thy will still unclear
Perhaps in heaven, and undoubtedly on earth.
The starving have no daily bread
Is yours the voice that may forgive us our trespasses,
the words so often I will not give?
I cannot handle the temptations
But in love for the other I seek some deliverance from evil.

Adapted from the Gospel According to St. Matthew

Thursday, 23 February 2012

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Ash(es to Ashes) Wednesday

Even though it was absolutely my intention from the get-go of starting the blog (and psyching myself up around New Year's) to post at least once a week, I have felt hesitant to because I haven't, to be honest, felt that I've had anything original or even definite to say recently. I now realize why nobody except Richard Beck at Experimental Theology writes long posts regularly.

My school has a priest who works out of our Interfaith Student Centre, and today he was doing the ash thing. Now, coming out of a decidedly non-liturgical background--much to my detriment I have concluded--lent has never been a big deal beyond the annual ribbing of my dad for liturgical calender info based on his 'Catholic' upbringing. To be honest, I have only the vaguest understanding of what the ashes are for. What I do know, however, is that at school today I did not go to the Interfaith Centre, and did not get the ashes from the priest. Was this meant as an act of defiance? Hardly. I'd chalk it up instead to a combination of about 80% forgetfulness, 12% little attachment to the tradition, and 8% my not being Catholic.

On my way home though, I felt compelled to participate at least a little in my own way. The first ash-like substance available to me was the sedimentary leftovers of the filling in a cracked sidewalk. As this was what was immediately available, I reached down and took a little on my finger, which I then applied in a smeared cross onto my forehead. At first I didn't give much thought to what significance, if any, there is in using leftover urban building materials, but my undergraduate pretentiousness got the better of me. If there is anywhere that Christ resides in our world, it must be in the seemingly useless leftovers of the urban mess. If indeed there is no big Other at the end of these forty days who is going to give me a pat on the back and an "Admit One" golden ticket then perhaps my forty days should be about communing with the world as it is. Looking down and in, not up and out, as it were.

Ramblings? Most definitely. Will follow up later. Welcome to lent everybody.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Super Heroes in 20th Century German Protestantism

Because I have far too much free time on my hands and access to MS Paint:

- Rudolf "Superman" Bultmann
- Wolfhart "Hawkgirl" Pannenberg
- Dietrich "The Flash" Bonhoeffer
- Jürgen “Batman” Moltmann
- Paul "Green Lantern" Tillich
- Karl "Wonder Woman" Barth

Omnipotence and the Light at the End of the Tunnel

There has recently been a conversation going on over at Rachel Held Evans's blog, where a guest post by Homebrewed Christianity's Tripp Fuller and Bo Sanders on process theology has provoked some interesting discussion about the relative power of God and whether or not God's victory in the end is a done deal (there is a follow-up post on Homebrewed Christianity here).  Where I would come in on this debate is as a person with a lot of sympathy for process theology, and in agreement with Tripp and Bo about omnipotence.

For God to be omnipotent--that is, to have unlimited power--is not only conceptually problematic but also, in my opinion, morally compromised.  Any God that could literally do anything, as an omnipotent one could, would be indirectly guilty of every act of violence ever to take place in this or any other universe.  Because that God could have stopped or diverted these actions but chose not to, that God would no longer have any real claim to being "good" or "loving."  Even the voluntarily self-limiting God of some Open Theistic, Social Trinitarian, and other progressive theologies would not be blameless in this framework.

None of that was actually the reason I wanted to write this post, however.  I'm more interested in the issue of God's foreknowledge and the certainty of eschatological victory.  In orthodox process thought, because the future is radically open and unknown, there is no guarantee that God will "win" and that evil will be completely defeated.  This bumps up against the eschatological certainty of most traditional theologies (even in Open Theism victory is guaranteed, God just doesn't know all the details leading up to it).

What I want to know is--and I might be alone on this, I don't know--why is the certainty of God's cosmic victory so absolutely necessary for most Christians?  I get that they don't want evil to have the last word, but it seems as if people are afraid to get on board with the program unless they know the end result in advance.  In my view, that allows for no real mystery, no real sacrifice, no real love, no real hope, and no real faith.  As John Caputo is fond of pointing out, the Pauline "hope against hope" can be a radically deconstructive move to act with hope in the most hopeless situation.  In fact, in Caputo's reading, it is only really hope when the situation is hopeless.  It just seems disingenuous for us as Christians to only join the team when the final score has already been dictated.

Forgive my grumpiness (and my binaries), brothers and sisters, but in eschatological certainty I only see a paradoxically idealistic strain of cynicism.  Also forgive my disorganization; I may revisit this with more fully formulated thoughts (and humility) in the near future.

Monday, 2 January 2012

The "little other" and the Sublimity of the Event

God is patient, God is kind.  God does not envy, God is not proud.  God does not dishonour others, God is not self-seeking, God is not easily angered, God keeps no record of wrongs.  God does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth,  God always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 
- a variation on First Epistle to the Corinthians 13: 4-7 
Over these Christmas holidays I have had the honour of reading John D. Caputo's What Would Jesus Deconstruct? and Peter Rollins's Insurrection, both of which place God far beyond the metaphysics of traditional Western theism.  Both books are wonderful, engaging reads, and both are incredibly troubling for the average layperson.  One need look no further for evidence of this than Creston Davis's 'glowing' description of the latter author: "Peter Rollins is the Anti-Christ for all fake Christians."

For the postmodern Christianity that Caputo and Rollins espouse is no intellectual affirmation of a set of historical or metaphysical principles, but a call to the radical life of love beyond the death of the self.  Rollins in particular is interested in doing away with what Žižek would call God as the "Big Other."  If we can no longer affirm the wholly Other Being who lives in the sky and justifies and gives inherent meaning to our existence, the natural first reaction is one of anxiety and despair; and believe me I have felt both recently.  Some have worried that Rollins gives us nothing more than God as a psychological process or reality, one that no longer has any sense of the Other that made the apophaticism of his early work so fascinating.

If for Rollins Lacan has seemingly overtaken Eckhart, I believe we still need to situate his project in terms of the larger postmodern Christianity.  This inevitably means bringing Caputo into the mix.  Nobody has been more influential in terms of putting religion and deconstruction into conversation; he was making this connection before Derrida himself took an explicitly theological turn towards the end of his career.  As Caputo states in What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, deconstruction is always pointing towards a future justice, that which is "to come"--the Event that is on the horizon but never fully in the present, lest we become complacent.  In both the thought of Caputo and Rollins, God is always an Event, a material actualization of the unconditional claim.  In this way God can indeed be seen, experienced, and indeed loved, but because the Event is always necessarily just beyond our grasp, calling us towards itself, it maintains its mystery and otherness.

Perhaps the Big Other is dead, and we cannot go back to Him without disassociating ourselves from modern philosophy and culture in a most egregious and painful manner.  That's fine, I think; God is too important to leave to questions of existence or being.  If we are to take the notion that "God is love" as important to theology, then I believe we still have the possibility to affirm that God on the horizon, the love that calls us ever further into the world.  We can still affirm the "little other," not the God who manipulates, but the one who seems distant but is manifest when we love our neighbours and enemies anyway.  The self-emptying God identifies Godself with the widow and the orphan, so it only makes sense that they should now be glorified and loved and seated in the abdicated throne of the Other.  As love has "no pride," nor should there be any in God, who always steps back to shine a light on the beauty in the broken other. 

Of late I have become ambivalent, borderline agnostic about the existence of the supreme being God.  However, let me always remain faithful to Christ and God the little other.